Ricardo Bofill, architect of otherworldly buildings, dies at 82

Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish architect behind some of the most amazing buildings in the world, died in a hospital in Barcelona on Friday. He was 82 years old.

The cause was Covid-19, his son Pablo said.

Among Mr. Bofill’s best-known works are social housing projects, mostly built in France in the 1980s, with largely oversized classical elements, which have been both derided as kitsch and hailed by critics as the long-awaited middle ground between historicism and modernity.

He began his career with a series of small projects in Spain that followed geometric rules to sometimes mind-boggling extremes. La Muralla Roja, designed in 1968 and completed in 1973, in the coastal town of Calpe, reimagined the North African casbah as a bright pink assemblage of walls and stairs as if arranged by MC Escher.

Another housing project from the same period, Walden 7, outside Barcelona, ​​consists of 22 towers grouped around five courtyards, their exterior facades painted an earthy ocher and their courtyard facades a dark aqua .

But it was more than simple aesthetic exploration that motivated Mr. Bofill. His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest cost you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk down endless hallways, and where different populations can be part of a community”.

By the 1980s Mr. Bofill had begun to use historical details as surface decoration – a hallmark of the style known as postmodernism. And for much of that decade, it served him well.

In 1985 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition of his work, including color photographs of a number of housing projects in and around Paris. The first built, Les Arcades du Lac, was a gargantuan version of a 17th-century formal garden, with apartment buildings replacing the hedges.

Another, known as Les Espaces d’Abraxas, reinvented and repurposed classic elements in unsettling, otherworldly combinations; it features vast columns made not of stone but of reflective glass. This project has often been described as a kind of “Versailles for the people”. But its jarring juxtapositions made it dystopian – and it served as the perfect backdrop for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film ‘Brazil’ and the last of the ‘Hunger Games’ films.

Paul Goldberger, the New York Times architecture critic at the time, wrote in 1985 that it was Mr. Bofill’s gift “to be able to unite the French instinct for monumentality, which had been dormant since he era when the Beaux-Arts ruled French architecture, with the country’s more current leanings towards populism.

Mr. Goldberger visited four Bofill projects which he called “collectively, the most significant body of architectural works built in Paris in a generation”. He was particularly interested in The Scales of the Baroque, a 300-unit development in the crumbling 14th arrondissement, classically detailed and organized around tightly composed public spaces. He described it as important to Paris as the Center Pompidou.

But the influence of the project proved to be limited. Postmodernism was short-lived and Mr. Bofill returned to more conventionally modern work.

“When post-modernism became accepted and popular in the United States and around the world, it also became a style,” Bofill told Vladimir Belogolovsky in a 2016 interview for the ArchDaily website. “And over time, it became ironic and even vulgar. I was no longer interested. »

Ricardo Bofill Levi was born into a prominent Catalan family in Barcelona on December 5, 1939, a few months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. His father, Emilio Bofill, was an architect and developer. His mother, Maria Levi, was a Venetian who became a patron of the arts in Barcelona.

Ricardo developed an interest in architecture when his father took him to visit building sites. But when he considered a career in architecture, he felt both inspired and inhibited. Having grown up under the dictator Francisco Franco, he explained in an essay in 1989, “you dream of freedom and great travels. I left as soon as I could. »

This happened after he became a student – and student activist – at the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona. During an anti-Franco demonstration in 1958, he was arrested and expelled from school.

He moved to Geneva to continue his training as an architect. While there, he told Mr. Belogolovsky: “My real passion ignited when I discovered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. I was linked to organic architecture, to buildings that integrated with nature.

In 1960 he designed a summer house for a relative on the island of Ibiza, a modest stucco building that seemed close to nature.

He founded his company, Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, in Barcelona in 1963. In 1975 the company – and Mr. Bofill – moved to La Fábrica, a 32,000 square foot former cement factory outside of Barcelona, ​​which he spent decades turning into a habitable ruin.

Five years earlier he had proposed a housing project for Madrid called the City in Space, an infinitely expandable structure with turrets and battlements and, in some renderings, a crazy quilt of colorful patterns.

According to Pablo Bofill, the project led the mayor of Madrid, an ally of Franco, to tell Mr Bofill that he would never build in Spain again. Mr. Bofill decided to start a new life in Paris, where he won the commission to replace the markets called Les Halles. His project was already under construction when the mayor of this city, Jacques Chirac, fired him from the project.

However, by 1985, his innovative social housing had made Mr. Bofill a star of the French architectural scene. But over the years, the projects outside of Paris have become symbols of violence and misery, and there has been a movement to demolish the Espaces d’Abraxas. However, the locals held back the wrecking ball.

In an interview with Le Monde in 2014, Mr Bofill said: “My experience in France is partly successful and partly unsuccessful. He succeeded, he says, by introducing new styles and new methods of construction. But, he added, it “failed because when you’re young you’re very utopian, you think you’re going to change the city, and in the end nothing happened.”

Besides his son Pablo and another son, Ricardo Emilio, who together run the Bofill studio, the survivors include four grandchildren and Mr. Bofill’s longtime partner, industrial designer Marta de Vilallonga. Mr Bofill never married, but he already had three longtime partners, said Pablo Bofill.

Mr. Bofill has completed three buildings in the United States: the columned Shepard School of Music at Rice University in Houston and two office towers in Chicago. His company’s work also included offices for Shiseido in Tokyo, university buildings for the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, and a W Hotel in Barcelona.

In an unexpected twist, Mr Bofill’s old buildings have found new fans in the 21st century. HBO’s sci-fi series “Westworld” was filmed in part at La Fábrica, and Korean TV’s juggernaut “Squid Game” featured sets that closely resembled La Muralla Roja.

These and other Bofill buildings became familiar Instagram backdrops – or, in the words of Spanish architect and educator Manuel Clavel Rojo, “His buildings became pop icons at the very end of his career. “.

About Byron G. Fazio

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